Joy for Castleford Tigers, Bradford Bulls and Hull KR as RFL reverse controversial decision over elite academy licences

A U-turn by the RFL has allowed Castleford Tigers, Bradford Bulls and Hull KR to continue running an elite academy side beyond the end of this season.

Last month the three clubs were told they would not be allowed to operate under-19s teams for five years from 2022, sparking outrage across the game and protests from past and present players, fans’ groups and local politicians.

But the RFL have now backed down and awarded ‘probationary elite licences’ to Tigers, Bulls and Hull KR, who all currently operate an elite academy but were told they would be excluded from the end of this season.

The probationary licences are initially for a two-year period, from 2022-23 and the RFL say the clubs’ progress during that period will be kept under regular review.

Jacques O'Neill, who is in Tigers' squad for Saturday's Challenge Cup semi-final, has come through the club's academy ranks. Picture by Allan McKenzie/

The governing body have also pledged to work with Leigh Centurions and Salford Red Devils, who had hoped to launch elite academies from next year, to consolidate their development academies and develop their surrounding community playing base.

The decision to award elite licences for 2022-27 to 10 clubs – Catalans Dragons, Huddersfield Giants, Hull FC, Leeds Rhinos, London Broncos, Newcastle Thunder, St Helens, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors – is unaffected.

The decision means the three clubs will be able continue to attract local talent into their junior system.

In a club statement, Tigers’ managing director Mark Grattan said: “After a tremendous amount of dialogue over the last fortnight, we are delighted to be able to announce that Castleford Tigers academy has its justly deserved elite status.

Jake Trueman is a Bradford academy product who graduated into Super League with Castleford. Paul Currie/

“Castleford Tigers will work with the RFL over the next two years to ensure that our elite academy licence will remain with the club for the next six years, as the sport of rugby league at all levels has a duty to grow the community game and increase the player participation pool.”

Tigers’ head of youth performance Darren Higgins added: “After a very difficult two weeks, the retention of Castleford’s elite academy licence is fantastic news and will allow the club to continue its youth development provision, which has continually progressed year on year.

“Every member of our 45-strong staffing structure will continue to work hard to provide the best possible environment for our aspiring young players and we look forward to seeing even more of our academy products progressing through the ranks and playing first team rugby at Castleford Tigers.”

There was a similar reaction from Hull KR and Bradford.

Rovers’ chief executive Paul Lakin stated: “It has been a traumatic two weeks for the club and in particular our young athletes and their parents.

“We are pleased with the outcome that has been reached following further sensible dialogue with the governing body.

“They recognise and acknowledge the groundswell of support we have received from within the city and beyond.”

And Bulls chairman Nigel Wood responded: “We have been working quietly behind the scenes to find a constructive way forward to continue to run our elite academy.

“We are pleased for our current cohort of players and parents and for those in the future who may hold similar aspirations.

“While extremely traumatic, we now see the position as a great opportunity to improve even further.

“That is a challenge for us all, the whole rugby league family in Bradford and one which I know we will rise to.”

Dave Rotheram, the RFL’s chief on-field officer, insisted the governing body remain committed to imposing elite standards.

“We are pleased it has been possible to reach this agreement for the benefit of all, while respecting the process that led to the initial decision,” he said.

“The RFL will work with all five clubs to address their specific circumstances.

“All have responded to these challenges with impressive energy, which has earned these opportunities.

“There is a recognition by all now that elite should mean elite and that everyone involved has a responsibility to protect and grow the sport from community right through to the professional ranks and our national teams.

“That means either restricting the number of full-time licensed academies or demonstrating an ability to increase the pool of players available for them.”

He went on: “That is now the challenge for the whole game and one in which all clubs recognise they must play their part, with the increase in standards of academies a key part of that.

“The standards will not be diluted and every academy licence holder will be held to account under the terms of the licence agreement.”